Renee Ary became the fourth winemaker in the four-decade history of Duckhorn Vineyards in 2014. Her promotion came after 11 years as an integral member of the winemaking team—including roles as assistant and associate winemaker.
Like the two acclaimed winemakers before her, Renée spent years working alongside her predecessors, honing her craft, refining her gifted palate and mastering the Duckhorn Vineyards style. Today, with an approach that balances artistry, science and a deep respect for the viticultural side of winemaking, Renée guides the entire Duckhorn Vineyards portfolio, crafting wines that offer structure and sophistication, as well as a deep and purposeful sense of place.
Widely recognized as one of California’s most treasured wineries, Duckhorn crafts beautiful wines from a variety of Napa Valley area sites. Renée applies an artisan’s approach to her winemaking and understands the needs and opportunities presented by each specific terroir and microclimate. By approaching each vineyard block individually, she embodies Duckhorn’s dedication to making classic wines that reflect the unique character and quality of the vineyards.
It was from her predecessor, Mark Beringer, that Renée gained a much deeper knowledge of farming, viticulture and the intricacies of Duckhorn’s diverse and storied Estate program. She also refined her blending skills, embracing the intuitive artistry of the blend, and the counterpoint it offered to the more scientific aspects of winemaking.
“From our own Estate vineyards to legendary sites like Three Palms, I am incredibly fortunate to work with some of Napa Valley’s most exceptional grapes,” says Renée. “When you work with fruit of this quality, there is no recipe or formula. My job is to let the vineyards speak and convey the soul of the wine.”
“It’s important to approach a role like this with humility,” adds Renée, “and with the knowledge that I am a part of an ongoing story—that I am contributing to the legacy of a great winery and building on the work of the talented people who laid the foundation for excellence.”
VineRoutes: Terroir is at the forefront of all discussion when it comes to wine. Which of your portfolio of wines best express or convey the true essence of terroir? Conversely, which Duckhorn wine(s) best express your style as a winemaker?
Renee Ary: Terroir is incredibly important and is reflected in all of our wines, whether it’s a vineyard designate from our Estate portfolio or an appellation wine that represents a broader area, they all reflect the unique terroir and microclimate.
Three Palms for me is one of the most interesting, especially for a merlot site. It is an incredibly rocky ranch with very little topsoil. The structure of the soil really comes through in the structure of the wine which results in an age-worthy merlot. The vines have to travel deep into the soil to look for water, which yields smaller berries and ultimately intense concentration.
VR: How important and influential is Duckhorn’s history and achievement to you? Knowing that consumers look to Duckhorn as the benchmark for producing world-class merlot, were you at all intimidated by that when you became head winemaker?
Renee Ary: This is extremely important. I believe that winemakers and their wines should be a reflection of who they are and I am a fairly traditional person. The history of Duckhorn and continuing that ongoing tradition is a huge part of why I am so proud to be the head winemaker. It was intimidating initially but being with Duckhorn for 11 years before moving into the head winemaker role, I was able to learn the style and understand our wines and vineyards through working alongside the previous winemakers and Dan and Margaret (owners of Duckhorn).
VR: As consumers grow more concerned with environmental practices, the wine industry is seemingly becoming more pressured into adopting sustainable farming methods such as becoming organic or even biodynamic. Consumers seem to be willing to pay a premium for more ethical grapes, which can be a powerful incentive for wineries. What are your thoughts/beliefs on the matter? Do you think sustainable farming is more about showcasing social responsibility, or does it have more to do with better terroir expression leading to better wines? Perhaps a bit of both?
Renee Ary: I think there are two parts to the equation, but there is also a lot of marketing out there that isn’t backed. I am proud to say that we have implemented winemaking and winegrowing practices that help improve our relationship with the environment and promote long-term sustainability but also lead to better wines and winemaking, such as composting pomace and utilizing cover crops that help moisture holding capacity and reduce water needs.
VR: What goals in winemaking are you still working to achieve (be it with Duckhorn or yourself personally)?
Renee Ary: I am always looking for ways to better our wines and our process, whether that’s through quality, efficiency, technology, etc. I am a firm believer in pushing yourself to be better and I enjoy being challenged in all aspects of my life.
VR: What about the entire process (from nurturing the vines all the way to enjoying the wine with a great meal) excites you the most? What do you find is most rewarding about your role as winemaker for Duckhorn?
Renee Ary: I am extremely lucky to have a job that I love and am passionate about. I have a degree in Art & Chemistry and I had no idea I was going to end up in the wine industry. Because of that, I am particularly fascinated by the intersection of art and science and how that plays into my day-to-day winemaking decisions. I also love that wine is rooted in agriculture and is dependent on nature and the weather patterns which makes every vintage different and allows me to be challenged each year. There’s no recipe and I love that. We also have an amazing Estate vineyard portfolio and working with some of the best vineyards in the world is very rewarding.
Duckhorn Vineyards 2017 Napa Valley Chardonnay
Chardonnay is a varietal that allows for so many different expressions. Duckhorn only started making chardonnay in 2012 but it feels as though it’s been a mainstay for decades. “As a chardonnay winemaker, I am extremely lucky to be able to create my favourite version of the varietal,” said winemaker, Renee Ary. “Most of our fruit is sourced from the cooler regions of the valley, mainly Carneros (Napa), south Napa, and Oak Knoll. This allows for the fruit to ripen without sacrificing acidity. I do a lot of lees stirring to build mid-palate weight and creaminess without a lot of malo-lactic influence. I also use a good amount of immersion barrels, which helps create a more elegant framework. It’s a fun wine to make!” Bright, round, layered and elegant, this wine is a bit of an outlier from the traditional Napa ‘fat chards’ that we’ve come to associate with the region. The oak is present without feeling heavy-handed, which only adds to the elegant framework. Not bad for a winery that’s made its bones on making some of the world’s finest merlot. ($49.95)
Duckhorn Vineyards 2017 Napa Valley Merlot 67.95
Like all of their previous vintages of this classic merlot, this is a complex blend of several individual vineyard lots, incorporating fruit from the estate’s vineyards and from top independent growers throughout the Napa Valley. The final wine is a rich and cohesive expression, reflecting the varied microclimates and soils of this unique place. Composed of 80 percent merlot, 16 percent cab sauv, 2.5 percent cabernet franc, with added small splashes of petit verdot and malbec to round out the blend, the wine was aged in 100 percent French oak (40% new, 60% neutral) for 15 months. Alluring aromas of lush cherry, raspberry and cocoa excites the senses immediately. The cherry and raspberry notes are echoed on the silky palate, where fine-grained tannins and flavours of ripe plum, blueberry, licorice and subtle baking spice draw the wine to a long, elegant finish. A delicious wine. ($70)